Risk of children and youth deaths increase

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Young woman with hand on forehead and eyes closed. Photo courtesy of Andrea Piacquadio.

An estimated five million children died before their fifth birthday and another 2.1 million children and youth aged between five and 24 years lost their lives in 2021, according to the latest estimates released by the United Nations Inter-agency Group for Child Mortality Estimation (UN IGME). “Every day, far too many parents are facing the trauma of losing their children, sometimes even before their first breath,” said Vidhya Ganesh, UNICEF Director of the Division of Data Analytics, Planning and Monitoring. “Such widespread, preventable tragedy should never be accepted as inevitable. Progress is possible with stronger political will and targeted investment in equitable access to primary health care for every woman and child”.

The reports show some positive outcomes with a lower risk of death across all ages, globally, since 2000. The global under-five mortality rate fell by 50 per cent since the start of the century, while mortality rates in older children and youth dropped by 36 per cent, and the stillbirth rate decreased by 35 per cent. This can be attributed to more investments in strengthening primary health systems to benefit women, children and young people.

But, gains have reduced significantly since 2010, and 54 countries – three of them from Latin America and the Caribbean- will fall short of meeting the Sustainable Development Goals target for under-five mortality. “It is grossly unjust that a child’s chances of survival can be shaped just by their place of birth, and that there are such vast inequities in their access to lifesaving health services”, said Dr Anshu Banerjee, Director for Maternal, Newborn, Child and Adolescent Health and Ageing at the World Health Organization (WHO).

Many of these deaths are due to congenital malformations and complications of being born early. As they grow older, violence, road injuries, suicide, are among the primary causes of death. Most deaths are preventable.

Expanding primary health care, strengthening health systems and aligning strategies and funding across sectors and stakeholders, are key to reducing child, adolescents and youth mortality in the Region. Access to and availability of quality health care continues to be a matter of life or death for children, globally. Most child deaths occur in the first five years, of which half are within the very first month of life. For these youngest babies, premature birth and complications during labour are the leading causes of death. Similarly, more than 40 per cent of stillbirths occur during labour – most of which are preventable when women have access to quality care throughout pregnancy and birth. For children that survive past their first 28 days, infectious diseases like pneumonia, diarrhoea and malaria pose the biggest threats. While COVID-19 has not directly increased childhood mortality – with children facing a lower likelihood of dying from the disease than adults – the pandemic may have increased future risks to their survival.

The reports also note gaps in data, which could critically undermine the impact of policies and programmes designed to improve childhood survival and well-being.

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